JERUSALEM – Israeli troops and tanks invaded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip late Saturday after eight days of punishing airstrikes failed to halt the militant Palestinian group’s rocket fire into Israel.
Gunbattles and explosions could be heard from Gaza City as high-rise buildings shook and artillery rounds lit the night sky. Columns of tanks and infantry, backed by helicopter gunships, pushed nearly half a mile into the territory from three directions.
Medical authorities in Gaza reported five militants and three civilians killed in the early hours of ground fighting. Israel said 30 of its soldiers and “dozens” of militants were wounded.
Israeli officials said they expected a lengthy battle but did not intend to remain in Gaza.
“This will not be easy, and it will not be short,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.
Hamas issued a defiant statement saying Gaza would “become a graveyard” for Israeli soldiers.
At the United Nations, the United States late Saturday blocked approval of a Security Council statement calling for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel.
U.S. deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff said the United States saw no prospect of Hamas abiding by last week’s council call for an immediate end to the violence. Therefore, he said, a new statement at this time “would not be adhered to and would have no underpinning for success, would not do credit to the council.”
The ground offensive, involving thousands of soldiers, was aimed primarily at Hamas rocket-launching facilities, Israeli officials said. Some of those sites are in open fields but many are hidden across Gaza in densely populated areas and are difficult to pinpoint from the air.
In choosing to strike from the ground as well as the air, Israel undertook two risks: Its army could get bogged down in a messy fight with a determined paramilitary foe. And Palestinian civilian casualties could rise sharply, increasing international pressure on Israel to halt the operation.
Israel’s airstrikes have already taken a heavy civilian toll. A missile demolished part of a mosque Saturday in the northern town of Beit Lahiya during late afternoon prayers, killing 13 people and wounding 33 inside, a Palestinian medical official reported. Two of the dead were children, he said.
The strikes began Dec. 27, a week after Hamas let an Egypt-brokered truce lapse. The six-month cease-fire had begun to break down in November.
More than 460 Palestinians have been killed in the operation, Palestinian officials say. About one-fourth of them were civilians, according to the United Nations’ tallies.
Yet the rocket fire by militants in Gaza has continued. Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed in the last week, as Hamas deployed more advanced, longer-range projectiles capable of hitting Israeli cities more than 20 miles away.
Hamas fired 29 rockets Saturday before the ground invasion began, Israeli officials said, hitting four homes in southern Israel and wounding three people.
In their defiance, Hamas’ leaders appear to be gambling that they can withstand an onslaught by the Middle East’s mightiest army and remain in power in Gaza.
Hamas, an Islamic group backed by Iran and whose charter calls for the Jewish state’s destruction, won the Palestinian Authority’s parliamentary elections in early 2006. An attempted unity government with the more secular, moderate Fatah collapsed in June 2007 amid fighting in which Hamas seized full control of Gaza. Afterward, Israel tightened a blockade of the territory.
Israel’s ground offensive began after dark following three hours of artillery fire aimed at blowing up mines Hamas is believed to have placed along the border.
The initial clashes took place in open fields, Israeli officials said. The soldiers did not immediately move into Gaza’s crowded cities, but some were seen before dawn today in Beit Lahiya. The soldiers wore night vision goggles on their helmets and camouflage paint on their faces.
Israel’s Channel 10 television said several thousand gunmen representing all of Gaza’s smaller militant factions had joined in the fighting.
The military’s announcement set a limited goal – taking control of “some of the rocket launching areas” used by Hamas and to “greatly reduce” the quantity of rockets fired at Israeli civilians.
In doing so, Israel appeared to give itself an exit strategy in the event the military offensive gets bogged down. Israeli leaders want to avoid a repeat of the 2006 war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which fought Israel to a demoralizing 34-day stalemate and made the Jewish state look weak in the eyes of other Arab foes.
Israeli officials said the aim in Gaza was not to overthrow Hamas or even to eliminate its capacity to fire rockets, but rather to crush its motivation for doing so. Some Israeli analysts and experts said this could be accomplished by a brief but powerful ground operation.
“Since the name of the game is killing and destruction, the ground operation has to be quick, with a lot of firepower at friction points with Hamas,” Alex Fishman, military analyst of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, wrote Friday. “The goal is to exact a high price in the early stages of the ground operation and to end it quickly.”
But as the ground offensive began, Israeli officials announced that they had ordered a call-up of tens of thousands of reservists and said the fighting could take time.
“We have many, many targets,” said Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli army spokeswoman. “To my estimation, it will be a lengthy operation.”
Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s security and foreign affairs committee, said, “No one is holding a stopwatch. There is no need to rush.”